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NHL Notebook

Ovechkin facing crucial leadership test Add to ...

They say the truth shall set you free. If that's the case, the Washington Capitals should be close to snapping out of their seven-game winless funk, which has plunged them all the way down to a tie for fourth overall in the Eastern Conference standings and a mere single point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast. People remember that the Caps won the division by 38 points last year and think the apocalypse is upon then.

Think again.

It may well be that this early-season adversity finally cures the Capitals of the one habit that is getting old in a hurry - following a strong regular season with a do-nothing playoff. They are being tested now and that test is being filmed, in all its glory, on HBO's 24/7 series and shown in living colour to cable subscribers across North America.

The unvarnished truth is there for all to see too - a fragile hockey team that requires its coach, Bruce Boudreau, to supply the missing energy and confidence in a flat almost lifeless dressing room.

That Boudreau's job should be in jeopardy as a result of the Capitals' current slump is a laughable concept at this point in time.

His overall NHL coaching record is a staggeringly good 157-67-32. On a percentage basis, that's Scotty Bowman territory. And to suggest that his success is all because Boudreau landed in the right place at the right time - replacing Glen Hanlon just as Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and the rest were entering their NHL primes - is a false assumption as well.

Boudreau developed many of the young prospects on the Capitals' roster in Hershey - and they all grew up together upon arriving in the NHL. The Caps are having the same problem winning when it matters that's plagued San Jose for years in the West.

The fact is, Washington has issues, just like every team in the salary-capped NHL. They rely on young relatively unproven goaltenders and lack a galvanizing veteran leader. Even the player they picked up to add experience to a raw defence corps, Scott Hannan, is quiet by nature.

Accordingly, it will be up to general manager George McPhee to figure out if such a commodity is available between now and the NHL trading deadline (probably not). If McPhee can't find it, then the leadership must come from within - and specifically in the person of Ovechkin, who has been a follow-me type of leader since assuming the captaincy from Chris Clark, as opposed to someone who can rally the troops the way Chicago's Jonathan Toews can.

Ovechkin's primary failing in last year's playoff was going all lone-wolf on his team when they fell behind against the Montreal Canadiens and couldn't solve the goaltending of Jaroslav Halak. This year, it looks as if Ovechkin has made a concentrated effort to be more of a team player on the ice.

For a short time, when he and fellow Russian Alexander Semin were playing together on a line, it was Ovechkin's playmaking that sent Semin off on a goal-scoring spree. It looks as if Ovechkin is caught in between right now, thinking too much about his own role on the team and what actually goes into being the captain of an NHL team.

He still leads the NHL in shots, with 146 in 33 games, but is just five up on Jeff Carter (Philadelphia) and eight ahead of Patrick Sharp (Chicago), for an average of about 4.4 per game. Usually, he is miles ahead in this category. Last year, his average was 5.1 shots per game (and only New Jersey's Zach Parise was even in the ballpark).

So Ovechkin has a lot to sort out in the next four months. Is he a scorer? Is he a set-up man? How does he tangibly demonstrate leadership when his English language skills are improving but still sounds better as a sound bite than anything else? Realistically, if Ovechkin sees this early adversity as a challenge and rises to it, it might be the best thing that ever happened to the Capitals down the road, when it matters most.

In the meantime, it is hard to imagine anyone doing a better job behind the bench than the charismatic Boudreau, handling a team of so many diverse personalities. This is one time where a coaching change could easily have the opposite of the desired effect - and actually send the Capitals retreating further down the standings.

THE PHILLY EFFECT: It was right around this time last year that the Philadelphia Flyers were floundering so badly in the NHL standings that they looked completely dead in the water. At Christmas, they had the same number of points in the standings as Toronto (34 - you can look it up, I had to myself). This year, they have the best record in the NHL and have clicking nicely on all cylinders through the first 33 games. Let's see how Chris Pronger's absence for the next four-to-six weeks because of a foot injury changes anything. The Flyers are uniquely positioned to overcome injuries up front because of their scoring depth and have muddled along with goaltending-by-committee for a second consecutive season.

But Pronger is the primary shutdown defenceman and without him in the lineup there is added pressure on Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timmonen to step up their play. One subtle change from last year is how coach Peter Laviolette has deployed Pronger. Likely in deference to his birth certificate (Pronger turned 36 back in October), Laviolette has kept Pronger's minutes way, way down. Last year, Pronger averaged 25:56 minutes of playing time per night (after five consecutive seasons in the 26-to-28-minute range). This year? Only 22:20 per night, second on the team behind Timmonen (22:27) and far below his usual numbers. The goal presumably was to keep Pronger fresh for what looks as if it could be a long playoff run. It may well be that the time off now will further recharge his batteries - while at the same time testing Philly's blue line depth.

COYOTE DESPERATION: When goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov came down with the flu Thursday afternoon, the Phoenix Coyotes were faced with a dilemma. Who would back up Jason Labarbera for their game that night against the New York Rangers? There wasn't time to get anyone up from the minors. As a result, they signed former college player Tom Fenton to a one-game contract and he sat on the bench for what finished as a 4-3 Ranger victory. The Sarnia, Ont., native hadn't played since his senior year at American International College and, according to an interview he did with MSG network before the game, got the call from the Coyotes as he was getting a haircut and originally thought it was a prank. No, it wasn't. So Fenton had his 15 good-natured minutes of fame and the Coyotes have until Saturday's date with the surging New York Islanders (one win in a row!) to sort out if Bryzgalov is healthy enough to play (or at least dress as a back-up).

GOALIE WOES: The Tampa Bay Lightning have the most conspicuous goalie issues in the NHL right now, with the tandem of Dan Ellis and Mike Smith ranked 29th, ahead of only the Islanders' pair of Rick Dipietro and Dwayne Roloson - (although Smith gave them a good night's work earlier this week in a 2-1 shootout victory over Atlanta).

Equally pressing is the issue in Columbus, where the nominal back-up, Mathieu Garon, has a GAA of 2.02, more than a goal a game better than starter Steve Mason (3.06), who was blasted out of the net again by the Edmonton Oilers' youth brigade Thursday night. Mason won the Calder as the NHL's rookie of the year two seasons ago, and then slumped badly in his sophomore season. It hasn't been any better this year.

Garon's goaltending has kept the Blue Jackets in the thick of the playoff race and the Blue Jackets need to walk a fine line there - between helping Mason get his confidence back and picking up enough wins to keep pace in a conference where four points separates 11 teams. It doesn't take much of a losing streak at this stage to fall back into the Calgary-Minnesota-Edmonton range.

OMARK AGAIN!: Linus Omark, recently called up from the Oilers' farm team, registered his first official NHL goal versus the Blue Jackets - his other tally came on that controversial shootout goal against Tampa last week - and it was another one for the highlight reel. In full stride, charging through the Blue Jackets' defence, Omark kicked the puck with the inside of his right skate, up to his stick, and in one motion, deked Mason. Omark also added two assists as the Oilers' kiddie corps went wild again.

Omark was unhappy with the organization that he didn't crack the NHL lineup out of training camp, but it's hard to argue with the results. By starting in the minors, he had more than a month to adapt to the North American game outside of the spotlight - and now he looks ready for prime time. A short minor-league apprenticeship never hurt anyone - and in Omark's case, it might have been just the thing to smooth the transition from the KHL, where he played last year for Dynamo Moscow.

ETC ETC: Columbus got Kristian Huselius back for the Oilers' game following a 22-game absence with a high ankle sprain, an injury that usually lingers, long after a player officially gets clearance to play again. It didn't seem to bother Huselius at all. In his return, he managed to score three times, doubling his output for the season ... Up-and-down Carolina won back-to-back games this week, with compelling comebacks, and in Thursday's shootout victory over Atlanta, Jussi Jokinen scored the 28th shootout goal of his career, making him the NHL's all-time leader in that category.

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